New York

Nigel Cooke

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Nigel Cooke holds a doctorate in Fine Art from Goldsmiths, London, where he wrote a thesis on the death of painting in the twentieth century. To begin by mentioning this fact might seem to be stacking the deck if a concern with the medium’s various historical demises did not figure so markedly in the British artist’s work—but it does, to the extent that he titled his second solo show at Andrea Rosen Gallery “Dead Painter.” The phrase encompasses art-historical corpses (skulls and bearded old men populated the six oils and two drawings on view) as well as Cooke himself, as one who paints what’s died. Indeed, the young English artist is not painting the end of painting so much as he is painting about the end of painting: His bile-colored canvases are phantasmagoric graveyards where the medium’s conventions and contraries have come to collide and expire and, in so doing, sustain his practice.

Cooke has said that his works “pretend at being total paintings, or painting extreme—overloaded, high octane, all the painting you’ll ever need.” The Artist’s Garden (all works 2006) displays such encyclopedic breadth in its welter of formal and stylistic oppositions. The spatial recession implied by a kaleidoscopic garden sprawling under a peaked-roof aerie is set against a gold backdrop, the monochromatic expanse of which, together with intermittent graffiti elsewhere on the surface, work to assert the flatness of the picture plane; abstract squiggles commingle with caricatures of human faces and animals; and color and line are used both as independent properties and as means of bounding form and object. In addition, the grand scale of the work (it’s over twelve feet wide) contends with the microscopic detail of its contents, and the lacquerlike polish achieved by repeated coats of paint is regularly punctured by small pockmarks resembling spots of rust.

Cooke has raised his horizon line in this batch of work, ceding more and more of the stretches of infected sky in his earlier paintings to loopy, meandering doodles. It’s a trading of curdled Romantic landscapes for even sicker Surrealist mindscapes. There’s more to decipher and less room to breathe, but what materializes in the bargain is Cooke’s keen feel for structure: The edge-to-edge marking in Ill Health, for example, evokes the dense spatial irresolution of Willem de Kooning’s Excavation, 1950. In two pencil studies, delicate sub-layer traceries and surface figuration seem to repeatedly alternate places, confirming Cooke’s fluency with multiple pictorial strata. Comparing the study for Night Thoughts with the finished canvas is akin to looking at an X-ray side by side with the object it pictures. This painting is the surest on view; its surface seems to pulse between the gray-on-gray ciphers of the still-life objects (bulbous fruit and a bottle of wine) that lie beneath and the crosshatching and built-up patches of paint above. These are huge, packed works that perhaps try to do too much at once—but such overreaching is endemic to Cooke’s project, and in his prolixity he succeeds in limning several of the practical and theoretical dynamics that have steered the past of painting and that will, for better or worse, shape its future.

Lisa Turvey